Some More Ramblings About Protagonists and Antagonists

clarissaContinuing with my ramblings on the whole issue of protagonists and antagonists and point of view, there is the question of how much of an antagonist’s viewpoint should be revealed to the reader. How much sympathy for him or her can be engaged , before it becomes counter-productive, and the antagonist in fact becomes too much of a threat to the empathy with the ‘main character, the one the reader is supposed to be rooting for’. My apologies that I don’t remember the website on which I found that quote, and so can’t duly acknowledge it with a link.

On a personal note, someone recently pointed out that I seem to have a natural sympathy for the bad guy, and I thought this unfortunately true; it probably accounts for why I would always like to be given more of the inner workings of the antagonist’s mind in novels. It also accounts for why I’m so often disappointed in these characters as ‘not fully realised ’. It often seems to me that in classic novels especially, they are intriguing but finally disappointing, and could have stronger motivation, and greater depths and complexity.

But perhaps here I am wrong, and the authors knew exactly what they were doing in not revealing too much of the antagonist’s point of view and particular motivations. After all, too empathic an antagonist can detract from sympathy with the protagonist.

I also read somewhere recently words to the affect that ‘the best favour you can do the protagonist is to have a strong antagonist’ (again, I’ve forgotten the name of the link to the website; oh dear; this looks like singular absent mindedness) .

That is true; but it is obviously a question of balance. For instance, with regard to one of the greatest plays of all time, I always found the character of Edmund in ‘King Lear’ fascinating; why is he so scheming and eager to do evil? How much is his treatment of Edgar motivated by jealousy and resentment at being ‘a bastard’ and so debarred from his father’s inheritance, and how much by what might be called ‘inherent badness? Or rather, giving in to the bead side of his nature, the evil streak that we all have?

Of course, the motivation and fascination of Edmund – who ends up being either directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of all three of Lear’s daughters and of King Lear himself, and of the mutilation of his own father – has been discussed at great length. Does he overhear the Duke of Gloucester when he makes purile jokes to the Duke of Kent about Edmund’s mother and the circumstances of his conception? Does he hear the Duke of Gloucester when he says that Edmund will be sent abroad again? This is largely a question of stage direction, and what original directions Shakespeare made which would no doubt clear the matter up have been lost.

But even when the villainies of a antagonist can’t be to some extent explained if not excused through this sort of ambiguity, Shakespeare’s antagonists are still fascinating. For instance, there is Laertes, fond son of that interfering and pompous Polonious, and fond brother of his sister Ophelia. I had to sympathize with him; Hamlet has unintentionally brought about the deaths of both, and Laeertes’ smouldering hatred is fully understandable; Hamlet’s outburst at Ophelia’s funeral, where he accuses Laetrtes of ‘whining’ and stridently insists, ‘I loved Ophelia’ is enough to provoke a frenzy of violent vengefulness in any fond brother.

The infinitely less gifted but still innovative pioneer novelist Samuel Richardson found himself in unforeseen difficulties in his portrayal of his arch villain, Robert Lovelace in ‘Clarissa’.images

There is no doubt that the moral (if unconsciously hypocritical) Richardson intended Lovelace to be a complete villain and incorrigibly bad. He is a misogynist, scheming and underhand almost beyond belief and to the point of sabotaging his own self interest and finally, a rapist.

However, Lovelace is presented through his letters as so lively, playful and witty, that it is hard not to enjoy him and his appalling immorality up untitl the point when Clarissa’s sufferings become so severe, his duplicity so pointless and relentless, that the reader is finally disgusted even before the rape.

Here he is, for instance, unkindly singling out another household’s servant for ridicule to beguile the weary hour: –

‘O Lord: said the pollard headed dog, struggling to get his head loose from under my arm, while my other hand was muzzling about his cursed chaps, as I would take his teeth out. ..’

Lovelace’s prose is always racy and vivid; it is impossible not to laugh at his awful antics.

His behaviour, of course, is self defeating; this does make for a weakness in his motivation. After all, as the proud heir of an aristocratic family, he needs an heir. If he constitutionally despises all women, and is motivated by an evil urge to prove that all women are lascivious and fair game, why does he think he can prove it by raping Clarissa when all his attempts at seduction have failed? That is surely an admission of defeat.

In fact, Lovelace admits as much at the end, so the unfortunate Clarissa experiences a moral triumph beyond the grave as he dies in horrible agonies from the wounds inflicted by Captain Morden in the duel she sought so hard to prevent: ‘Blessed …Let this expiate.’Clarissa and Lovelace

From a practical point of view, Lovelace would have done far better to have married Clarissa after he had tricked her into literally running away with him, and made her life a misery from then with rakish ways and constant unfaithfulness; that seems to me an altogether more satisfactory conclusion to the story than Richardson’ s long drawn out  melodrama.

However, this is to wander from the point, which is that in depicting so charming and high-spirited an arch-villain as Lovelace, Richardson encountered unforeseen difficulties. As the volumes were produced, too many of his readers became too fond of Lovelace and insisted on seeing him as treated too harshly by both the author and his virtuous, but unfortunately stiff and humourless heroine, and suggested that the best thing all round would have been for Lovelace to marry Clarissa after the rape, thus ‘making amends’.

Of course, that was the conventional wisdom of the eighteenth century, disgusting as it seems to us, and in having his heroine reject him, Richardson was making a moral stand (as Gaskell was later to do in ‘Ruth) against this view that a rapist  or even a mean seducer in marrying his victim somehow put matters right.

Because of the charm of Lovelace’s presentation, many critics and readers ever since have adopted an over sympathetic view towards this arch-villain, and this stimulated Richardson to write indignant  prefaces and additions refuting such claims. Yet, however, much Richardson may have told his audience how his novel should be read, many persisted, as he saw it, in wilfully misunderstanding his intention.

And here, as I’ve said before, we come to a problem; as authors we can do our best to portray a character in such a way as to evoke a particular response. But when that book is published, it is finally up the reader to decide. They may find our antagonists altogether more intriguing than our protagonists, and the more human, complex and beguiling we make our antagonists, the greater the danger of that.

In my next post, I’m going back to one of my favourite novels to explore some problems when writing a novel where the antagonist, through sheer force of presentation, takes over from the hero as a protagonist and a main focus of interest – yes, it’s Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lover’s’ so you have been warned.


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